Exhibition sheds new light on Oscar Wilde's life in Reading Gaol
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Exhibition sheds new light on Oscar Wilde's life in Reading Gaol

DOCUMENTS found in the Reading Prison archives have revealed a photograph of an inmate thought to have been admired by Oscar Wilde.

The image shows Henry Bushnell, who was imprisoned in Reading Gaol while Wilde served a two year sentence after being convicted for engaging in homosexual acts in 1895.

It was uncovered by the University of Reading’s Professor Peter Stoneley, who has researched the archives to “shed new light” on the men who helped Wilde through his imprisonment and inspired The Ballad of Reading Gaol, who he claims have been “largely ignored” until now.

Working closely with staff at the Berkshire Record Office to uncover details of the prison regime in Wilde’s time, Prof Stoneley spoke today - on the 160th anniversary of Oscar Wilde’s birth - of the highlights.

“The well-known legend of Reading Gaol has, until now, focused almost exclusively on the tragedy of Oscar Wilde - the story of Wilde’s homosexual relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, which led to a criminal conviction, imprisonment and untimely death is a compelling series of events,” he said.

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“But Wilde himself urged us to look beyond this story to ‘the others’, the men, women and children who were in prison alongside him,” he added.

“It was seeing and understanding their suffering that helped him to come to terms with his own, and it made him an extraordinarily powerful advocate for prison reform. Yet until now, no genuine effort has been made to understand the circumstances of these men.”

“So this research traces, as far as the records allow, the lives of Wilde’s fellow prisoners.”

Among the findings is the photograph of Bushnell, who is believed to be the ‘little dark-eyed chap’ Wilde refers to in his prison letters.

Seven mugshots exist of the young man, who was incarcerated 21 times for thefts between 1892 and 1911.

“In the 1890s most inmates were not routinely photographed, but as a repeat offender, Bushnell was often photographed on admission,” Prof Stoneley explains.

“These seven mugshots of Bushnell are the only known photographs in existence of any of the working-class young men in whom Wilde took an interest through his life,” he added.

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The discoveries form part of a new exhibition, ‘Oscar Wilde and Reading Gaol’, which opens at the Berkshire Record Office on Monday, October 20.

Author Merlin Holland, Oscar Wilde’s only grandchild, will give a talk entitled 'Oscar Wilde: in Court, in Prison, and in Exile' at the launch event.

Professor Stoneley’s full findings are due to be published later this month in the Journal of Victorian Culture.

For further information visit www.berkshirerecordoffice.org.uk